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Review of the Herman Miller Embody chair

This review is part of my series of reviews of ergonomic office chairs. People have wildly varying opinions when it comes to chairs, and you should always test a chair for a few days in your own work environment before buying it. (See more advice on how to buy a good chair.) Don’t use my reviews to decide which chair to buy; use them as a starting point for your own testing.

Photo of the Herman Miller Embody chair

Let me tell you about effect the Embody has on people. I went into the showroom of my local office furniture dealer with a budget of about €800, stretchable to a non-negotiable limit of €1,000. With a price starting at €1,400, the Embody was strictly out of the question. But there it was – sitting there with that skeletal backrest and gorgeous design, like some prop from Star Trek that accidentally ended up among regular chairs. It would have been a shame not to try it out, if only out of curiosity.

As the flexible backrest cradled my back and the plastic “pixels” massaged my muscles, I started gently rocking back and forth, trying to think about how to drag out the conversation with the salesman to avoid having to get up. “Come to think about it”, I thought, “perhaps I could add €400 to my budget. After all, an ergonomic chair is an investment in health. You can’t put a price on that!” The salesman must have noticed my reluctance to get up. “People look at various chairs, but everybody always ends up on the Embody”, he mused. A couple days later, I was test-driving the Embody in my room.

The Embody seems to take a page out of Apple’s playbook – not just in terms of the design (it could have been designed by Jony Ive), but also the hard-to-justify price. There is no denying that it is a beautiful piece of industrial design, far better looking than the much-touted Aeron. I really can’t think of many chairs whose design is in the same league as the Embody – perhaps the Steelcase Think or Gesture, but that’s it.

The backrest on the Embody is a very flexible sheet of plastic supported by a matrix of loosely connected H-shaped “pixels”. As I mentioned above, the feeling you get when resting against it is that of being cradled and massaged at the same time. I didn’t make a video, so here’s a clip from TheTechReviewer’s review:

The thing about the backrest is that the flexibility is all in the upper torso. In the lumbosacral region, the chair is quite rigid. After 2 hours of sitting, I noticed my sacrum started getting sore from the plastic pegs digging into my spine. I am not the only one who’s run into this issue – one of my friends felt the same way, and there are a lot of online reviews which include the same complaint.

Whether or not you find the Embody uncomfortable in the sacral area, you will probably agree that it is not a “comfy” chair. It does cradle your back, and it does massage it, but it is a rather firm massage. If you want a feeling of induldgent comfiness as you settle into your chair after a long session at the gym, look elsewhere.

The shape of the backrest on the Embody can be adjusted with that knob on the right you can see in the above clip. This is similar to the “lower back firmness control” on the Steelcase Leap. What this does is change the shape from more of an S shape to a straight I shape, or vice versa. If your back is more curved, you need more of an S shape (the lower curve of the S fills in your lumbar region). I was able to mitigate the sacral discomfort by straightening the backrest, but then the upper curve of the S also became straighter and started pushing my upper torso forward in an uncomfortable way. Because the knob controls two sections of the backrest at the same time, there was no way to adjust it to fit the shape of my back. Perhaps the sacral part of the backrest could be made more comfortable by adding some foam in the right place, but I didn’t have the time to test it – plus there’s the question of whether you should have to do that kind of thing on a €1,400 chair.

The innovative backrest is attached to a bog-standard “smooth” synchro-tilt mechanism. This forces you to sit in what is essentially one position – you can recline a bit if you exert your back and thigh muscles, but the resistance rises quickly and you won’t be able to hold the position for any significant length of time. There’s a knob to adjust the resistance, but you cannot use it every time you want to change your position because you’ll go crazy trying to find the right setting for relaxing, and then the right setting for working, every single time. (The knob is continuous – there is no visual or tactile feedback as you turn it, so good luck getting back to your optimal working resistance if you change it.)

There is a trick that lets you recline without using your muscles – you can shift your body weight by putting your arms behind you like so – but then you can’t operate your mouse, so you cannot, for example, do casual browsing in a reclined position. Another way is to make the backrest resistance very low (so you can achieve a good recline angle for an extended period) and, when you want to do some serious typing, engage the tilt limiter to keep yourself (near-)upright. The tilt limiter then acts as a switch for changing position from upright to reclined, and vice versa.

Making heavy use of the tilt limiter is the best solution – though I should probably call it the “least bad” solution because it has some disadvantages. First, the Embody’s backrest doesn’t have a lot of inherent springiness, so when you hit the limit, it’s not exactly super-comfortable (see below clip from bkwtang’s epic review).

Second, if you’re being kept upright by the tilt limiter, you can no longer rock on the chair, and rocking is good for you.

Third, the tilt limiter control itself does not lend itself to frequent use. You have to move the tilt limiter lever by two stops to go from a near-upright position (tilt lock 2 – 112° hip angle) to a reclined position (tilt lock 4 – 127° hip angle), which is somewhat annoying. What’s worse, the lever is positioned at the very back, under the seatpan – hardly the most convenient location for a control that you’re supposed to use many times a day. (On the plus side, it looks like you don’t have to take your weight off the backrest in order to go from one tilt lock setting to another, like on the Aeron. But I’m going by the linked video here, so don’t take my word for it.)

Changing your position frequently is vitally important from the point of view of ergonomics, and your chair should encourage you, not discourage you from doing so. I feel that any chair that doesn’t let you easily switch from a near-upright (110–120°) “typing” position to a highly reclined “thinking / casual browsing” position (around 130°) cannot be called truly ergonomic. (I am well aware that, by this measure, the vast majority of office chairs are not ergonomic.)

The maximum hip angle on the Embody is around 127°, which is similar to the Steelcase Amia and considerably less than on the Leap or Gesture. That’s not a great result – I would like to see at least 130°.

If the smooth backrest makes it hard to switch between two positions, at least it gives you the ability to rock back and forth around your normal position, which is fun and probably good for your health (though less important than frequent position changes). However, if you use the tilt limiter as described above, you will obviously lose “rockability” in the near-upright position.

Photo showing the construction of the seat on the Embody chair

The bottom of the seat on the Embody

The thermal performance on the Embody is excellent. Your back rests on a porous fabric and the flexible plastic backrest, which has tiny ventilation slits. There is no foam in between. The seat is foam-free as well – it’s built like a mattress, with a layer of plastic hexagons on top of plastic springs on top of metal(?) strings. It’s a brilliant design that provides 30–50% better cooling (subjectively) than foam without sacrificing too much comfort. During long sitting sessions in an ambient temperature of 25 °C or higher, the Embody is much cooler than foam-based chairs.

As expected on a Herman Miller chair, the armrests are nothing to write home about. I found them hard to use because they’re a bit too long and there is no back–front adjustment. As a result, they kept bumping against the edge of my desk as I tried to move closer to my keyboard and monitor. About an inch shorter would have been perfect for me. Your mileage may of course vary.

I was able to adjust the armrest width so that I could use them to support my forearms when typing. The in–out adjustment of the armrests is achieved in an unusual way (again, I’m borrowing from TheTechReviewer here):

The result is that if you adjust the armrests inward for typing, they will also have a bit of a slope, which may make it harder to reach for the mouse because your forearm has to “climb the slope”.

A bigger issue is that the armrests tilt back as you recline, taking your arms away from your desk. This is a problem, because you cannot, for example, read something in the reclined position while using the mouse to scroll the page. Here’s how the Embody compares with the Steelcase Gesture (which has very level armrests):

Two photos showing the reclined armrest angle on the Gesture and the Embody.

Armrest angle on the Gesture and the Embody at the same recline angle (Embody’s maximum recline). Source: bkwtang’s long review.

It’s impossible to review the Embody without talking about the price. This is one heck of an expensive chair. The base price in the US is $1260, but Herman Miller will charge you an extra $40 for the better-looking white frame, and (outrageously) an extra $200 for the softer, more breathable Balance fabric (highly recommended given how hard the backrest is), bringing the total to $1400.

The Tom Test

  • Easy changing between at least two positions (near-upright and reclined): I’m not sure if it’s a pass or a fail. You can use the tilt limiter as an “upright/recline switch”, but the lever is hard to reach, and then the backrest becomes a bit too stiff in the upright position. The reclined position is not very reclined.
  • Open hip angle in the reclined position: Pass. Much better than the Aeron.
  • Lumbar support: Pass.
  • Backrest should adapt to your back: I’m not sure. The backrest is flexible in the upper body, but the lumbosacral part can be hard and unforgiving. Could be a pass for you, depending on your back shape.
  • Seatpan must not be too long: Pass.
  • Micromovements: Pass. You can rock on this chair, as long as you don’t use the tilt limiter.
  • Armrests (if you care about them): Fail. They don’t stay level, are a bit too long, and the “sloping” width adjustment is not well-designed.
  • Annoyances: Other than what I’ve listed above, none.

Final words

Like most chairs with smooth backrests, the Embody is primarily a chair for sitting in one position – the “intensive working” position. You can try to make it do two positions, but it will make you feel it wasn’t really designed with that in mind: the tilt limiter makes the back a bit too stiff, the mechanics of switching from one position to another are a bit too cumbersome, and the limited recline angle does not let you truly relax your lumbar spine. In terms of allowing easy upright/reclined changes, it’s really not that different from your average $200 office chair with a synchro-tilt mechanism.

Since I consider changing your position to be an ergonomic priority, a chair that gets a mediocre grade in that area cannot get a great overall grade, even if it is perfect in all other ways (and, to be clear, the Embody isn’t).

Although the top part of the backrest feels amazing thanks to the innovative “pixel matrix”, the sacral section is quite hard and eventually caused soreness for me, my friend, and at least some other people (judging from online reviews). In my case, it would have been enough to send the chair back, but it could be absolutely fine for you, as long as you don’t mind firmness.

This is not a chair for armrest-lovers. Although they’re an improvement over the Aeron, a gaping chasm separates them from the best efforts from Steelcase.

I did not buy the Herman Miller Embody and I cannot recommend it, but it is a great-looking chair with some intriguing features. I would very much like to see some of the innovations used in it – particularly the pixelated back and the mattress-like seatpan – make their way into other chairs.

 

Thanks to Kornak Meble in Wroclaw, Poland for letting me try out the Embody and a few other chairs.

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